Last weekend, the four candidates for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency — and by default Japan’s next prime minister — made their rounds on televised debates to showcase their vision forward for Japan.
Among the many topics discussed, one was particularly notable: constitutional amendment, something the country has never done before.
All four candidates showed support for an amendment in principle — but what does that actually mean?
Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida explained that he would support implementing the party’s established four-point revision plan: clarifying the legality of the Self-Defense Forces, adding provisions for emergency powers, electoral district reform and instituting free education.
Administrative reform minister Taro Kono kept his position vague, saying that he would support amendment of the Constitution to match a new era.
The most conservative candidate — former internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi — stated that there is a need to establish a new Constitution with specific focus on evolving Article 9, the war renunciation clause. Her position most closely reflected the concept of the draft Constitution that the LDP produced in 2012.
The most liberal of the candidates — also a former internal affairs minister — Seiko Noda expressed a desire to determine the points of amendment based on public feedback.
An important political factor at play here is that every single candidate has to voice support for constitutional amendment if they hope for a shot at winning the party presidential race.
Why? It’s not only because constitutional amendment is a high priority for the more conservative camp inside the LDP. After all, revising the Constitution was one of the principles upon which the party was founded in 1955. In other words, to challenge that core principle would be unforgivable heresy from a presidential-hopeful, so of course they were all going to voice support.
Still, out of the four, only Takaichi has really committed to an independent vision for amendment. Kishida merely reaffirmed something the party already had in place, while Kono and Noda just agreed in principle to the need for amendment. This means that Takaichi is probably the only candidate that would be willing to spend the political capital necessary to vie for amendment.
That does not mean Takaichi would have success in the endeavor. Although not the political third rail that it used to be, constitutional amendment still offers opposition parties a polarizing position issue through which to galvanize voter support. With a Lower House election in the coming months and an Upper House election next summer, Takaichi or anyone else who may have aspirations of pursuing constitutional amendment would pursue it at risk of damaging the party’s public standing during election years.
Then there are the practical realities; namely, the hoops through which a leader would have to pass the proposed amendment. Legally, constitutional amendment is only possible with two-third majorities in both houses and a majority approval via public referendum. This requires a great deal of negotiation and coordination.
The first step is gaining LDP consensus on the proposed amendment, which sounds simple enough in theory but is incredibly difficult in practice.
Inside the large LDP, there are myriad views of what an appropriate constitutional revision should look like, and they have wrestled with this issue for years. The best they could settle on in the recent past was the four-point plan that Kishida parroted last week.
Once the leader gets the LDP to settle on a proposed amendment, he or she then needs to go to the party’s coalition partner, Komeito. The traditionally pacifist Komeito has its own opinion on constitutional amendment, and the LDP will need to accept the junior partner’s positions if they can hope for the Komeito’s help in reaching a two-thirds majority in both houses.
Even with the Komeito’s support, the leader will need to reach across the table to pro-amendment opposition parties to secure the rest of the necessary votes. The problem is that joining forces with the LDP would tarnish their “alternative to the LDP” stance, even if they were ideologically aligned with the proposal. To counterbalance those costs, opposition parties will exploit the LDP’s desperation as much as possible, both in influencing the content of the amendment as well as other policy concessions that would follow.
Once the proposal has been negotiated and modified through interparty negotiations, the leader will have to take it back to the LDP to ensure that everyone is still on-board with the final draft of the amendment. Such consensus is not a foregone conclusion. As we have witnessed in this LDP leadership race, party members are willing to challenge party and factional unity to preserve their own political survival and satisfy their own interests. While the LDP can weather the current intraparty in-fighting, it cannot afford any dissension in the ranks if it hopes to gain the two-thirds majority in both houses needed for constitutional amendment.
Even if the leader were able to succeed up to this point, there is still the public referendum. The leader would have to communicate to the public a real necessity for the revision, lest the opposition label it what it really is: a fait accompli — something that once complete establishes a new status quo. In this case, the LDP’s belief is that if the party can amend the Constitution once, it will be easier to do it again in the future, which is a point the opposition parties will hammer over and over again to the public. To succeed, the LDP would have to silence the critics and somehow convince enough people that the amendment is actually necessary.
None of the tasks described above are easy, and for eight years under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the party never even made it past the second step.
Given these political factors and practical realities, there might be talk about constitutional amendment in the current presidential race, but not a single one of the candidates has the combination of interest and ability to get an amendment through all the necessary gates.
Barring landslide victories for the party in both the upcoming Lower House and next year’s Upper House elections, the status of LDP-led constitutional amendment will remain the same as it has since 1955: an oft-discussed ideological pillar that remains yet immovable.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.